In its first year of operation — 2009 — international online news start-up GlobalPost published more than 3,000 stories. It did so with a network of nearly 70 in-country correspondents around the world. The Boston-based venture debuted at an interesting time in the industry, when the for-profit model is nearly overshadowed by many start-up non-profit news organizations. At the helm is executive editor and co-founder Charles Sennott, a journalist with decades of foreign reporting experience, primarily in the Middle East. He’s worked and filed for The Boston Globe, New York Daily News, New York Post and National Public Radio, among others. Now he leads a team of reporters who provide in-depth coverage, analysis and commentary about global issues, teaming with more than 20 syndication partners (so far) to distribute content.
What motivated you to get into journalism and international correspondence?
I’ve always wanted to do journalism, and always as a foreign correspondent. I did a junior year abroad in Spain in college and was fascinated by it. While there I did an internship with Radio Nacional de España. I translated the weather forecast. What was fun about it was that I was in a newsroom and got to see the inner workings.
Back home, as a college senior, I interned at WFCR, an NPR affiliate. I ended up really loving radio and staying with that and hosted a show. And I even filed for “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.” From there I got a job at The Bergen Record (in New Jersey). I covered Hudson County. You know, two-bit organized crime. While I was a crime reporter with the New York Daily News, I was one of the first reporters on the scene for the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. That led to my editor sending me overseas to cover Islamic extremism. And it all began with cop reporting in the city.
This is just for fun. GlobalPost had an international news quiz highlighting stories it covered in 2009. I got 13 out of 20, by the way. I’m curious if you took the quiz and how you scored.
Well, 13 is pretty good. I think I got 17 / 20.
GlobalPost came at an interesting time — when legacy media outlets are closing foreign bureaus and many domestic news startups are going the non-profit route. But you went for-profit. Why?
I think we’re in a time of ferment and change, and there are no set trends in the industry right now. I did a Neiman Fellowship year at Harvard to catch my breath after 10 years reporting from overseas. And I began to actively explore something that would look like GlobalPost, but as a non-profit. But I was a little impatient and didn’t think I had the skill set to set up such an organization. I was looking to organize a virtual board of advisers for this, and I found out there was someone else in Boston looking to start a similar venture, but as a for-profit. So (co-founder) Phil Balboni and I met. He has the business experience and the plan, and I have the international reporting background.
Did you ever rethink that decision or seek to alter the business model?
No, I’m very confident that the business plan we put together is solid and well thought through. We’re going to have to find a way in the digital age to pay journalists for what we do. And on the non-profit side, there can be a lot of hoops you have to jump through to fulfill the requirements of a grant. Another thing about for-profit is that it allowed us to move much more quickly. Honestly, we started GlobalPost in the nick of time, because the economy went south after we started, and we may not have received the same start-up funding had we waited.
Your content is mostly free, but a limited amount, and other special perks such as access to conference calls with correspondents, costs. It’s part of your “Passport” memberships. How successful has this program been, and do you envision it as a sustainable revenue stream?
Actually GlobalPost has three revenue streams. One is online ads, and it’s apparent that online advertising alone won’t sustain news organizations. The other is syndication, and we’re working closely with papers to distribute our material. And it’s different than the AP, which is very important. And the third stream is Passport, a paid membership model. What that’s saying is that we want people to have more access to the online community, and to pitch a story to editors and have that pitch voted on by the Passport community. Right now all three streams are producing revenue.
In your opinion, if there’s one aspect of foreign coverage that American news outlets consistently get wrong or overlook, what is it?
The thing we’ve gotten wrong for too long in traditional media is the global connections between stories. We covered the tsunami (in 2004), but we don’t have the larger trends of global context inside breaking stories. Too few outlets have local correspondents that can tie into a global network.
A lot of non-profit news initiatives center on collaboration and content sharing. But you’re doing the same, and you have partnerships with multiple outlets, from CBS News to the PBS NewsHour. How important is collaboration to GlobalPost and the general idea of balanced international news?
Partnerships are the future. And they’re important for us in our most ambitious international projects. For example, one we did as a partnership with Public Radio International and the program “The World” was on the Taliban. When I went to Afghanistan in June 2009, I did a four-part radio series, 10 minutes each part. The audio was the basis from which we built our multimedia presentations on GlobalPost. But then you can’t just take a good radio piece and turn it into multimedia. I don’t believe in the model where one person (or outlet) does everything. That can create mediocrity.
I have to ask about one such partnership, since it struck me as interesting — that is with BillOReilley.com. Obviously it’s different than CBS News or PBS. How did that come about?
There’s a fact of the birth narrative of GlobalPost that I love — and that it came about as a linking partnership, not an editorial partnership. It’s the same with Huffington Post. We have Huffington on the left and O’Reilly on the right. In fact, both partnerships were signed within days of each other, and now both link to our content on their sites.
To those journalists and entrepreneurs looking to branch out into new forms of news coverage, what advice would you give?
I’d say this is the middle ages of this time of change. In the real Middle Ages, you had the collapse of the Roman Empire, and it was a time of innovation and romance. This is the time to band together to set our goals and slay some dragons. Think about what corner of journalism you care about and how to build a great team. But at the same time, you need to have someone who can assemble an effective business model. You need to find that mix, which is a strong grounding in journalism and a strong sense of business, and that will carry you forward.
There are a lot of young journalists looking for work and those getting ready to graduate who would like to work internationally but might be scared by the all the “sky is falling” news about the industry. What advice would you give to a young journalist — or veteran — seeking to get into foreign correspondence?
My advice is “be not afraid.” This is one of the most exciting times to be entering journalism and media. It’s not hyperbole to say it’s a time of revolution. People with bold ideas and a desire to do great journalism can go forward and create something new and have a great impact. People for the first time don’t need to have a great fortune to be able to publish. Too many people who come from a legacy media background, like I did, are too quick to say the best days are over. At the end of the day, it will come down to getting the facts and being a storyteller, just like it always has.